African American Males in Foster Care and the Risk of Delinquency: The Value of Social Bonds and Permanence

Article excerpt

Juvenile delinquency remains a significant problem for child welfare systems throughout the United States. Victims of child abuse and neglect are more likely relative to children in the general population to engage in delinquency (Ryan & Testa, 2005; Widom, 1989). Although the magnitude of this relationship is not fully understood (Zingraff, Leiter, Myers, & Johnsen, 1993), the risk of delinquency is particularly high for African American males, adolescents, and children in substitute care settings. Unfortunately little is known about the factors that connect the experiences of maltreatment and delinquency. This lack of knowledge makes it nearly impossible to decrease the risk of delinquency for children in foster care. To improve the understanding of juvenile delinquency in the child welfare system, the current study tests aspects of social control theory within the context of foster care. We focus specifically on the effects of foster parent-foster child attachment, commitment, and permanence. The results indicate that strong levels of attachment decrease the risk of delinquency for youth in foster care. Involvement with religious organizations also decreases the risk of delinquency. In contrast, perceptions of placement instability, placement with relatives, and school suspensions are associated with an increased risk of delinquency.

Juvenile delinquency remains a significant problem for child welfare systems throughout the United States. Victims of child abuse and neglect are more likely relative to children in the general population to engage in delinquency (Ryan & Testa, 2005; Widom, 1989). Although the magnitude of this relationship is not fully understood (Zingraff, Leiter, Myers, & Johnsen, 1993), the risk of delinquency is particularly high for African American males and children in substitute care settings (Ryan & Testa, 2005). Yet debate continues regarding the factors that connect these two phenomena. To improve the understanding of juvenile delinquency in the child welfare system, the current study tests aspects of social control theory within the context of foster care. Our approach is similar to that of development and life course criminologists-we investigate the significance of key institutions of social control as children transition through adolescence and into early adulthood (Sampson & Laub, 1993). We focus exclusively on African American males in the foster care system. We examine attachment, commitment, and perceptions of permanence.

Healthy development is dependent upon parents and other socializing agents making consistent investments in the care, education, and supervision of children. Such investments help instill a sense of attachment, commitment, and obligation that tie children to family and conventional role models. Social control theorists posit that these investments and social bonds prevent children from engaging in delinquency. Difficulties arise when children experience low levels of investment and weak social bonds. When confronted with opportunities to engage in nonconforming or undesirable behaviors, children with extensive and strong social bonds have a greater stake in conformity and are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior that might jeopardize those relationships (Furstenberg & Hughes, 1995; Hirschi, 1969). Attachment and commitment represent two key components of the social bond.

Attachment

Attachment is defined in terms of a psychological and /or emotional connection with significant others and represents a core element in the development of social bonds (Marcus, 1991). Children lacking adequate levels of attachment are believed to be free from moral restraints (Hirschi, 1969). When children and adolescents are free from moral restraints and are insensitive to the feelings and norms of positive role models, the risk of participating in delinquent behavior increases (Thornberry Lizotte, Krohn, Farnworth, & Jang, 1991). …

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